Theater Arts in the Archives

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Located at 40 Lincoln Center Plaza, just steps from Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is celebrating 50 years of its videotaped theater archives in an exhibit titled “Focus Center Stage: 50 Years of the Theater on film and tape archives.

Every aspect of the Theater on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) is commemorated by video monitors playing clips from musicals, plays, and interviews that can be heard through the attached adjustable headphones.

“Just by walking through the exhibition, (students) can get an idea of ​​the breadth and depth of the collection, of all the recordings. It’s literally five decades of history – there’s something for everyone,” said TOFT Deputy Director Wendy Norris.

The exhibition begins with a mural of poster-sized posters depicting the work recorded by TOFT. The route of the exhibition is punctuated with extracts from the archives of more than 8,000 video recordings, of which approximately 4,500 are live performances. The showcase even includes avant-garde musicals and plays, like the first production recorded for the archives: an Off-Broadway rock musical with an all-Asian cast titled “Golden Bat.”

To conclude the first floor of the exhibition, an interview with the founder of TOFT, Betty Corwin, after her retirement in 2001. In the video, Corwin listed values ​​important to her, which she took into account during the creation of the archives in 1970.

Corwin mentioned the representation of women, people of color, LGBTQ+, and people with disabilities as important to TOFT’s message and lore. She believed that theater recordings “reflect the times, reflect the three decades of what happened in the world”.

For Corwin, theater is not just part of culture but also part of how people measure history.

“Preserving the history of the theater was really one of the main goals of creating the collection and also of safeguarding these recordings for future generations to study, learn and be inspired by.” Wendy Norris, Deputy Director of the Theater on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library

TOFT always considers the diversity of each story, as well as artistic merit, when deciding which 40 to 50 productions to record each season. Norris admitted it was difficult to narrow the roster to comply with financial and time resources.

TOFT also has collections of notable professional theatrical performances, such as the studio for the first act of Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George.”

The rest of TOFT’s taped collection consists of interviews, theatrical awards programs and film adaptations – including the film adaptation of “Fences” starring Denzel Washington, Fordham College at Lincoln Center ’77.

Preservation is a harbinger of progress for those at TOFT. Norris said that prior to the pandemic, researchers traveled from approximately 48 states and 32 countries to access the records because “preserving theater history was really one of the primary goals of the establishing the collection and safeguarding of these recordings for future generations to study, learn and be inspired by.

Norris noted that their largest audience is likely to be theater professionals, but student groups such as English classes and art history classes have also used their viewing rooms.

Jennifer Clark, a professor in Fordham’s communications department, said she used the archives for her own research and for a course on costume design.

Clark said there are many notable scholarships from TOFT, such as “Divine Decadence: Fascism, Female Spectacle, and the Makings of Sally Bowles” by Linda Mizejewski, highlighting the breadth of research available to a few. not.

As Norris noted, “the theater genre reflects life”. Almost anything at TOFT could intersect with his studies.

“I think theatre, really – it needs support, it needs audiences. That’s the beauty of live performance is that it’s a conversation between the artists, the creators and the audience – it’s an exchange. Norris

On the left side of the first-floor exhibit is a display case with Corwin’s photo, with chocolate bars stacked underneath – a traditional gift to stagehands that Corwin started.

Upstairs, images set in film cell frames show the behind-the-scenes work of stagehands, cameramen, costume designers, playwrights and directors.

“We wanted to highlight that the archive was a success thanks to the great cooperation of all the theater artists who all have to give permission for a production to be taped,” Norris said.

TOFT’s 2002 Tony Award, also featured in the exhibit, highlights the friendly appreciation between theater makers and TOFT theater curators.

Norris also stressed the importance of hearings, virtual or otherwise.

To see Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, library card holders can take the elevator to the third floor, where the Lucille Lortel Screening Room houses 24 computer monitors and video screens encompassing the room in a white noise.

“I think theatre, really – it needs support, it needs audiences. That’s the beauty of live performance is that it’s a conversation between the artists, the creators and the audience – it’s an exchange,” she said.

The most recent recordings for the archives were the Broadway production of “Mr. Saturday Night” and the off-Broadway production “On that Day in Amsterdam”.

To see Broadway and Off-Broadway productions, library card holders can take the elevator to the third floor, where the Lucille Lortel Screening Room houses 24 computer monitors and video screens encompassing the room in a white noise.

According to Norris, the monitors are used for playback controls, while video signals are sent from archival recordings and playback decks in the basement to reserved video screens. There are also bookable viewing rooms suitable for classes or large presentations, equipped with film and DVD projectors.

The exhibit begins at the Plaza Entrance of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and spans the first two floors of the library, accessible by stairs or an elevator.

To get involved in theater preservation, you can support the archive for free with a card from the New York Public Library. Contacts and additional information about the exhibit, archival appointments, and New York Public Library research can be found here.

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